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The Pastel Academy – Update Spring 2018

Getting COMPOSITION/DESIGN Right!  How Important is it?

The main tools in an artists kit bag


And No I don’t mean our painting materials!

The painting at the head of the page is called ‘Heading For the Lake – Spring – Andalucia’.     It is a painting that could not have been done without my knowledge of Composition and how to bring together elements from my sketchbook, from some scenic photos and some addition sketches and photos of horses and people.    It was not simply a matter of waiting for that scene to happen in reality!  I would probaby have been waiting for ever!


Learning – whether online or in workshops is usually down to learning a technique or two in a specific subject;  usually within an hour or two.  But without the background knowledge of where those techniques fit into the big scheme of things  you have perhaps at best just learnt one trick. 
There is just no avoiding the fact that without a solid foundation in the construction of a painting, the tonal values and the advantages of understanding colour theory, success in you work is a  hit and miss affair.  The Core Foundation Subjects apply to all painting subjects and mediums.

So what is composition and why is it important?     Well put it this way, without it your painting can easily miss the target you have set for it.      Composition leads the viewer’s eye to see what we want them to see.  And how we want them to see it.  What composition does is puts you in control of the message you are wishing to give in your work.    Even for a portrait,  there are ways to keep your viewer engaged in the area you want them to.

Knowing how to compose a painting puts the artist in charge of how to make the best of the elements and how to NOT make simple compositional errors which detract from the work and often ruin it.

In short it is a massive tool in the artists tool box.  It is vitally important to good landscape and portrait work and equally so for those in still life subjects, and florals which heavily depend on how to compost the subjects.


It is a Lightbulb moment for many artists


Composition in drawing and painting are a little like learning the grammer when learning how to write.  Just stringing words together won’t work.  You need to know how to construct a sentence and how to use punctuation, as well as have a good vocabulary.    Without an understanding of how to use the basics in art, you are just stringing together an ad hoc list of techniques.   More than that:  you are missing some major tricks.    

Taking all that into account, I was very slow to learn.   I knew what I wanted to know, but art college was not an option for me, so I had no guidance, or means of learning other than books which can only give you information; not guide you how to apply it.   So I learnt the long hard way, experience.  I had to.

Why?   Because I was a portrait painter and using a lot of really poor photographs!   Often tonally very poor and often very old photos:  snapshots of often deceased family members, that customers wanted turning into portraits.  So I would try to compensate for the poor photos by being as creative as I could, and this wasn’t nearly enough to compensate for my lack of knowledge.

Does that ring a bell with anyone?

Soft Pastel ‘Old Andalucia’  14 x 19 inches

Greyscale version of ‘Old Andalucia’ (colour removed)

Heather if you had to choose;   Which are the two most important ‘Core Foundation subjects’:


To complete a good original painting depends on two in particular: 

Tonal Values – how the painting is designed tonally – light and dark .

Composition – how it is designed.    

Without those two elements in particular, the painting will suffer.    Colour theory is very important, but a painting can have average colour and still work to a degree.    Drawing and perspective are massively important and both are on the Academy curiculum,  but good pieces can be achieved using gridding to transfer an image initially.  It is not  ideal but it can keep artists working while they improve their drawing knowledge over time.  But the two major guns in the armoury are Tonal values and Composition; without either one of which,  a painting will be substantially weakened and much less than it could be, or fail totally.

Failed paintings are frustrating (and expensive) and even moreso if you have no idea WHY it has failed   I’m sure that rings a bell with many of you.    But you can more or less guarantee that a high proportion of the major critical faults I see in work which has been otherwise beautifullly rendered, are faults in values and composition.     You can avoid that happening – easily.

Tonal Values  Many artists work in black and white mediums – graphite, ink, charcoal (all covered in the Academy).  Work in these mediums depends on a good arrangement of values; light, mid tones and dark tones.   The difficulty is in seeing poor tonal values when colour comes into the mix.   Which is why in the academy I use a method of teaching members how to assess their own work for tonal values issues. One thing to always look for;  your painting should work equally as well in it’s greyscale version (with the colour removed) as it does in colour.   Does yours?   (Check out the two images above)

Composition – Good design in a painting, no matter what the medium you use (it is the same for all mediums)  is something which is simple enough to learn.  It is always good to have guidance when applying the theory into practice though, as Academy members constantly tell me.      But it isn’t difficult and there is a logic behind it:

What to include and what not to include in a painting is a major issue.

What simple traps which are often found in snapshots, do we need to ignore when we use them as references for paintings is another issue.

How to keep the viewers eye on the most important part of your painting is massively important.

How to recognise when there are perspective and distortion issues in photos of humans and pets is one that crops up regularly on work I see on my Pastel Facebook sites.

What to do with paintings which are ‘just not right’ often need to be re-designed,  which is something the Academy members are going to be doing next month.    It is going to be interesting!

The Challenge I gave to the readers of a UK Artists magazine was to assess the original photograph and produce a painting after having decided  whether it could be improved compositionally.

I wanted to encourage the readers of the magazine this exercise was in, to question the photograph?  Could it be improved?

‘I use photographs to complete my portraits – why do I need to know about Composition?’



My first landscape was pretty Dire.  I copied it from a photograph.     But what was on the photo,   went into my painting.  No question; if the lamp  post was on that photo, I added it, if it needed it or not.   If the tree was too big, it never occurred to me to make is slightly smaller.   If a house was not facing the right direction, I didn’t realise I could move it around.    If a horizon was too low, I never thought of raising it a little.       But I wasn’t happy with the results.   No amount of technique in pastel was helping me out here!
And I learned along the way that the stuff I didn’t know in landscape, was the stuff I didn’t know in portraiture either!    And as a portrait artist, I wanted to do the best for my clients.  
Photographs are a blessing and a curse to artists in equal measure. They are a blessing because without them many artists would have no reference material to work from; but they are a curse because so many fall into the trap of just copying them, warts and all!  There are also some artists who strongly believe that a photo is an accurate record and so you cannot ‘move’ any of the elements to make a better composition.
Wrong – you can and you should . You are an artist – not a photocopyer.
The worst of it is without a good knowledge of Composition you can easily be copying massive mistakes in composition made by the photographer.

Can you Turn an Average Photo into a Good Painting?


But did you know you might have a load of you own ORIGINAL source reference material in all of those old photos which you are hoarding?  Once you understand what composition knowledge will do for you,  you will see those photos with different eyes.
How many of us have masses of old photos that we have taken on holidays and days out which are disappointing and never seem to capture the moment?   With a limited amount of compositional knowledge – (plus an understanding of Tonal Values) it is amazing what you can do with those old photographs! In fact one of my favourite classes in workshops over the years was the photo editing day. Students would bring a selection of their photos (many which they had thought impossible to use) and managed to design new paintings by cropping and editing, and often re-formatting.
Not only that, with compositional knowledge they are able to take elements from different photos into one painting!

Changing the portrait image into a landscape one, opened out the focal point and gave it more ‘importance’.   Some detail was omitted from the focal point (the bridge).  I then decided to turn it into a sunset scene for added drama and to support the focal point even more. The painting now has more depth and perspective.

(I cant tell you what happened next because the Academy members are doing this exercise soon! )


Composition is a Win Win!

I like being in charge of my work.  I enjoy having choices, and having had my eyes opened to what was possible, for me, it was the road to development or nothing.   Being in charge of my choices is true artistic freedom.      Some years down the tuition line, I learnt from my students too.   Now I always start a new artist off in simple landscape and with the core principles of painting.    I go on to teach them portraiture too. Anyone with the slightest training in art will see when a painting has just been copied from a photo; warts and all.   It is often heart breaking to see such great use in techniques of a medium like pastel which is not the easiest to master, but some or all of the basic fundamental principles of painting have not been understood by the artist.    It is a shame;  I cannot stand to see talent wasting itself.

Knowledge is power – not least of all for artists.

It makes my day when an artist joins the Academy and states up front; 

‘ I havent had any trainging.  I want to know the stuff I dont know about good paintings’

That is music to my ears. That means I have a new member who wants to really improve and grow as an artist.   For other members joining the Academy was indeed a lighbulb moment when they looked around and realised that what they didn’t know was massively important.  They saw the work of those going through Tonal Values and Colour Theory and they wanted to produce work like that. It took me a few years to learn how to ‘use’ photography (and to take better photographs) to the greater benefit of my work.  It was vital that I did learn and it is equally as vital to you if you wish to take your art seriously.

And I know that many of you do. The Pastel Academy Online is a resource for all artists who have gaping holes in their knowledge.   (Yes people join to learn the basics because it applies to all mediums).      The structured exercises in the Training area address all the issues that would trip us up.


The Pastel Academy Online


In late April we start our Composition Module.    The current members are looking forward to it and it is an ideal time to join – as the module begins.     So click here to check out how to join the Academy.     Meanwhile please do leave me a comment, and answer this one question;   Did this blog resonate with you?     Have you found that just copying to produce a portrait can often be frustrating because knowing how to compose it properly FROM the photo eludes you?    Have you got files full of old photos and new, taken at some point which you hoped to turn into a good painting? In the new Composition module I am asking members to post a few of those, then we discuss the options and learn.   Join us!

Oh and if you want to know what happened next with the Windermere exercise, remind me in the comments below.    XXH Happy Painting!


  1. Eleanor Mcilroy

    composition and tonal values are what I need to learn about. I have been asked to paint a scene which is a bit like the one with the horses above, except that there is a castle, not horses!

    • Heather

      I sympathise Eleanor. It really is down to getting the basiscs under your belt. Mail me if you feel ready to take the plunge and join the Academy. XH

  2. Keren

    Totally rings true with me, and you have me intrigued with the Windemere painting 🙂

    • Heather

      As a member of the Academy – you will be doing that exercise Keren!

  3. Karen

    I would love to paint all the time. If I could make a living from it, this has always been my dream.
    My work has sold over the years, but painting is a never ending learning process, and looking back there are a great many I would change and try to improve on, before framing, which is also a large expense.
    I love reading the blog here, and can identify with much of it. I struggle with photos wondering how to improve composition, tone etc to produce a lovely painting, and would really love to do this, and to be able to market my work successfully.

    • Heather

      Karen, part of the academy Mission is to get good artists tuition ready – so that they can earn from their work and teaching. This is because I taught Workshops, Painting Holidays throughout europe and beyond, College Summer Schools in Portraiture, and taught privately for 26 years. I am also a trained tutor. Which makes me a rare artist in the pastel world. In addition to which there will eventually be a marketing section in the Academy – because I have 30 years experience in that too.

      Consider joining the Academy on the Silver level where all the Core Basics Training is. See how much you will learn – have a structured plan and progress. My mission as the Academy website tells you – is to produce some excellent and knowledgeable pastel tutors. I want artists like you. You have nothing to loose – there is a money back 30 day guarantee. It is what the academy is for. XXH


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